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Freelancing: The Future of Work?

Highlights from the Future of Work Conference held in Karachi last weekend.
Published 28 Jun, 2023 05:01pm

. There is a tinge of excitement in the air as the audience settles for the “Future of Work” conference, organised on June 24 at the PC Hotel by the Pakistan Freelancers Association (PAFLA) and sponsored by UBL. PAFLA describes itself as a “support system for independent workers with the mission to promote their interests through advocacy, education and services.”

The crowd is primarily a young, eclectic mix of students and freelancers. Several people have come with their families, even mothers with their children in tow. There is a reason why so many have showed up and I am here to find that out.

Gig economy and freelancing are the new buzzwords in town. Over the past few years, Pakistan has developed into a hotspot in several ICT industries. This success can be attributed to the competitive quality and rates that Pakistani freelancers offer. Fresh graduates entering the labour market prefer earning in dollars as opposed to the traditional nine-to-five office existence. All you need is a computer and a stable internet connection.

The promise of such careers in freelancing and quick money help explain why the Zaver Hall in PC is entirely packed, with more waiting outside. I am later informed that since the hall was filled, the organisers had to close entry.

Freelancing 101
The name of the conference is somewhat amiss, as it readily becomes apparent that the focus is on the future of freelance work. The first session I attend is inaugurated by Ibrahim Amin, Co-Founder and Chairman of PAFLA.

According to Amin, freelancers in Pakistan generated close to $400 million in 2022, making Pakistan among the top three markets globally for freelancers. Crucially, he adds, the past year saw a 30% growth in earnings from the non-IT sector. These figures, however, are the tip of the iceberg as an Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce & Industry report indicates that freelancers can potentially add $60 billion to the economy in the next seven to eight years. With over half the country’s population below the age of thirty, the possibilities seem endless.

Amin paces the stage, recounting the initial struggles of establishing PAFLA, including dealing with the bureaucracy. His team came up with the idea of PAFLA in 2018 but it was only until 2021 that they were registered as a non-profit. He cuts a popular figure, with the audience giving him a standing ovation when he wraps up.

Game On
After this, Zeeshan Bari, HOD Game Development, Futurealiti, delivers an interesting talk on the potential of the gaming industry. Bari notes that according to cautious estimates, there are around 8,500 game developers in Pakistan who earned around $40 million last year. Many in the audience are surprised by these numbers. While talking about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), he provides a stunning statistic: the game has earned $10 billion since its launch in 2018.

Other speakers from the first session provide tips on how to enter the freelancing world, build a strong online brand, the power of collaborations in building successful partnerships and how to approach foreign clients. There is clearly a secret ingredient to freelancer success. Ali Ahmed Badgewala, Digital Marketer and Content Creater, delivers a passionate motivational talk on how to dream big, citing his remarkable journey.

Asif Jafri, CEO KistPay, talks about how mobile phone financing (through KistPay) can empower freelancers in Pakistan. Jafri also announces that KistPay will deploy funds for laptop financing and will cater to the training needs of the freelancer community.

The subsequent sessions include talks by experts and the success stories of Pakistani entrepreneurs. Mir Aamir Nawaz, Group Head Distribution, UBL, gives an overview of the banking options for freelancers offered by UBL. Incidentally, as UBL was the sponsor of the conference, Aurora spoke to a representative from the organisation who added that “the UBL Freelancer Account was launched last month to cater to the growing needs of the freelancing industry. Through the account, freelancers are provided with rate breaks on loans, complimentary insurance coverage, free general banking services and discounts on co-working spaces.”

Other prominent speakers include Ayesha Mubarak Ali, fusion-tech artist and Creative Director at MetaVisionaries, who has been named on Forbes Asia’s 30-under-30 this year, Ayesha and Areesh Fatima, the youngest Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certified professionals, and Salman Noman, Pakistan’s first influencer to surpass 10 million subscribers on Youtube.

The third session includes a talk by Irfan Malik, CEO, Xeven Solutions on how to freelance in an era where emerging technologies are ubiquitous. The guest of honor at the occasion was Kamran Tessori, Governor of Sindh. Each session closes with a smartphone giveaway activity and a group picture with the speakers. In between sessions, there are networking opportunities, if you can muddle your way through the crowd.

A Bumpy Road Ahead
Despite the potential, freelancers in Pakistan face a myriad of challenges as they navigate their journey. Speaking to Aurora, Tufail Ahmed Khan, Chief Executive Officer, PAFLA, comments that “freelancers in Pakistan encounter numerous difficulties that hamper their development. Lack of knowledge about opportunities and a lack of training facilities are the key problems.”

Dr Johar Ali, Vice Chancellor Usman Institute of Technology (UIT), says, “Opening a bank account and an account on Fiverr requires guidance. Language training is also required in order to bridge the communication gap and secure higher pay scales. If we can fix our ecosystem, there is no limit to what the freelancing industry can achieve. If countries like Vietnam and South Korea can do it, so can we.”

Ultimately, the conference was an overwhelming success, given the unexpected turnout and enthusiasm of the audience. It seems that freelancing has struck a chord with the youth as a viable career option. These are all promising signs. For dollar-starved Pakistan, freelancers can emerge as a lifeline. It can be argued that Pakistan’s youthful population, if properly trained and nurtured, constitutes its comparative advantage in the global market. However, for the gig economy to thrive, it is essential for stakeholders, including government bodies, educational institutions and financial institutions, to work together to create a favourable ecosystem that nurtures and develops the freelance community.

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